Sociologists have long theorized that being the more committed partner in a romantic relationship is a very uncomfortable place to be. “If one lover is considerably more involved than the other, his greater commitment invites exploitation or provokes feelings of entrapment, both of which obliterate love,” Peter Blau explained in his classic book Exchange and Power in Social Life (1964). Earlier, Willard Waller coined the idea of the “principle of least interest” in relationships: The person with the least interest in continuing the association has the power to dictate the terms on which it will continue.
But few marriage and relationship scholars had taken up the challenge of empirically investigating such relationship and their dynamics. So Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades of the University of Denver looked at a sample of 315 young unmarried couples (59 percent dating and 41 percent cohabiting) between the ages of 18 and 34. These couples had been together for two years at the study’s beginning and each romantic partner had rated their level of commitment to the relationship. Twenty-four percent had at least one child from a previous relationship, and 13 percent had a child together.
Stanley and Rhoades found, as they predicted, that both people in an “asymmetrically committed relationship” report much lower relationship quality, more conflict, and more aggression than do couples in which each partner is equally committed. “It is immensely dissatisfying and frustrating to be the more committed partner in an unequally committed relationship,” as Stanley and Rhoades note.
Were these asymmetrical relationships more likely to break up? Yes, overall, but when the scholars looked closer they found that this was mostly true when the less committed partner was a woman. “Overall, women’s levels of commitment were vastly more predictive than men’s levels of who stayed together and who did not (five times more predictive),” Stanley and Rhoades report.
When she’s just not that into you, there’s no future in a relationship. But the converse is not necessarily true.
We have no baseline data to know for certain whether asymmetrical commitment is on the rise, but Stanley and Rhoades think it is. Courtship rituals designed to elicit expressions of commitment have faded. Dating and relationship norms (other than avoiding violence) have thinned out, and cultural scripts about relationships have been tossed into the ashbin of history. Getting pinned is something one does in wrestling, not relationships, and even the concept of “the date” is growing ambiguous.
Children of divorce, seeing their parents’ rotating relationships thereafter, have both a longing for stable love and a fear of ending up with the short end of the commitment stick. So today “more people are finding themselves in long-term, unmarried relationships, sometimes for many years, before they realize that their partner is just not that into them. Sliding into moving together or having a child together is often not transformative.”
If you want a happy and stable marriage, don’t slide, decide.
— Maggie Gallagher is the author of four books on marriage and a longtime contributor to National Review.